After months of sowing, tending, watering, and weeding, the garden is finally bursting. During the last days of summer, I am always drowning in tomatoes. Black cherry tomatoes. Frilly fiorentino tomatoes for salad. Tomatoes for pasta sauce. Still more for canning.
But this summer is special because of the tomato plant that helped me understand the will of God.
I have recently had a story published about how I experienced my personal will synchronize with the will of the Higher Self in my garden. Entitled “God’s Tomato Plant”, this article originally appeared in the September/October issue of The Daily Word.
There is no nice way to talk about this. Our planet is under siege and we are committing collective suicide. June was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. As I write this, fires are scorching Western Europe and California. For the first time ever in the UK, temperatures topped 40° C (105° F). In Italy where I live, 28% of the land is currently turning into desert.
The U.N. Secretary-general, António Guterres, has said:
“Half of humanity is in the danger zone from floods, droughts, extreme storms and wildfires. No nation is immune. Yet we continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction. … We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.”
Yes, it is in our hands, but time is slipping away. Our planetary disasters are slowly becoming normalized. Our hearts and minds continue to resist even the smallest personal change. Friends and family still fly off on long-distant holidays. Pineapples and mangos still appear on the supermarket shelves. We are eating too much meat. The planet is water-stressed. Everything is still swathed in plastic.
Yes, we are addicted to fossil fuels, but if we deeply assess the addiction, we see that it is an addiction to consume, to own, and to have power – all driven by a fear of not having enough.
Despite the need for radical systemic global change, our will is constantly twisted and out-maneuvered, sabotaged and stymied. We are being overrun by greed and betrayal. As Grete Thunberg has said, all the proposed mitigation to prevent the climate catastrophe has proven to be a lot of “Blah. Blah. Blah.”
Facing the Collapse
Lately I have been following webinars by Joanna Macy and Jonathan Gustin entitled “Climate Change as a Spiritual Practice”. During one of these events, an article written by ethicists David Schenck and Larry R. Churchill was presented. The article is entitled “Ethical Maxims for a Marginally Inhabitable Planet”. I highly recommend that you take time to read this article.
Based on their bioethics work in intensive care units (ICUs) and hospices, they have come up with six ethical maxims for a time of collapse. These maxims are useful guidelines for what we will need to face. Our world is in free fall, a state that researchers have recently coined as ‘Collaspsology’.
As Schenck and Churchill write: “Maxims are less how to analyze and choose and more how to be.” Maxims are moral virtues which we can start to cultivate now to help us inwardly prepare for catastrophic events.
The authors insist that theirs are not the only maxims, but a bare beginning. Think of them as seeds for the future. They are a place to start. A place to ask yourself: What values do I want to develop, gain some mastery of, and activate during this potential human tragedy and all that it implies?
Here are the six maxims, along with some of my own reflections on them. I also added two of my own. Feel free to do that same, and share with others.
Maxim 1: Work hard to grasp the immensity.
Just as it is difficult to accept devastating news about one’s health, it is equally difficult to accept the devastation being imposed on the planet and all its living beings. Like any health crisis, we have to grasp all that we are facing before we can choose the best remedy.
While contemplating this maxim, I thought about Wilfred, whom I met years ago in London. Born in Germany in 1928, his father was a high ranking official in the German army. He thought, even though he was Jewish, that he and his family were perfectly safe from persecution. Failing to grasp the immensity of Nazism proved fatal to everyone except Wilfred, who at 13 managed to escape and walk by himself over the Swiss Alps to Milano. There he was able to locate a distant uncle who was working as a tailor. The story goes on, but teaches us not to be shortsighted or feel immune when facing looming disaster, especially while it’s happening to others all around us.
Maxim 2: Cultivate radical hope.
Schenck and Churchill explain that radical hope is the “kind of hope that reappears after optimism has died.” It is not fantasyland or magical thinking. Radical hope is the grace that comes once we hit rock bottom. Radical hope demands that we be courageous.
This maxim immediately brought to mind Dante’s Divine Comedy and his approach at the Gate of Hell. Like most of us, Dante would have preferred to avoid this gate all together, opting instead to ascend directly into Paradise. The inscription on the gate’s lintel stops him in his tracks: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter (Inf. 3. 9). Dante decries these words, and Virgil, “a man of quick discernment,” exhorts Dante – to not leave behind “all hope,” but rather to leave behind his “sheer black cowardice” (15).
One time while in Assagioli Archives I discovered a note that said “Will-to-Joy”. The words are double underlined with blue and red pencil. We could say the same about hope: “Will-to-Hope / The duty of Radical Hope”. A willful practice to be and create joy and hope.
Lately, I have been consciously practicing radical hope. In the garden, while pulling up weeds – yet again… When meeting someone new and thinking they might become a friend… While stumbling over my Italian – yet again! While praying for rain…(this goes with my Maxim #8).
Try practicing radical hope today and see what new energy it brings – especially when it seems like there’s nothing left to do.
Maxim 3: Have a line in the sand.
This maxim is not so intuitive. Having a line in the sand means coming to some understanding about what you will do and what you will refuse to do. It’s about setting boundaries. For someone who is dying, this maxim determines whether she will continue on life-support or not. For Viktor Frankl and Etty Hillesum, it meant defining their attitude while facing the horrors of concentration camps. In Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela tells of one of his lines in the sand; he refused to escape from prison, even though he had numerous opportunities to do so.
This maxim is a serious one and requires all aspects of will – strong, skillful, good, and transpersonal. In fact, this maxim is so serious that I couldn’t help playing humorously with it (see my Maxim #7). My line in the sand is: When there’s no more food, I will not eat my dog. But I will eat my neighbor’s dog, especially the one that barks all night. hahahaha
But seriously, who knows what I’ll be willing to eat if I’m starving? Like the authors say, drawing a line in the sand demands that we activate our imagination alongside the understanding that the sands are constantly shifting. We are more likely to manage shifting boundaries well if beforehand we imagined the worst and practiced this willful act to its conclusion.
Okay. Let’s try again… If I’m starving, I’ll eat my chicken’s eggs and then my chickens. And if my neighbors are starving, I’ll share my eggs and then my chickens. And if we are all starving…? Well… this obviously still needs some more work!
Maxim 4: Appreciate the astonishing and unique opportunity.
During the webinar, I was impressed by how Joanna Macy, who is 93 years old, expressed her joy to be alive at this moment and able to witness the transformation we are about to undergo. She said she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Personally, my initial instinct is to run away. But then I have a strong subpersonality who tends to operate in this fashion.
The key word here is ‘appreciation’. Now is the time to practice appreciation of our bodies, feelings and thoughts. Our ability to embody courage and grace. The daily gifts and smallest blessings.
I remember my mother telling me years after my father’s murder how she managed to take hold of her life again. Tragically widowed at 46 years old with four kids to raise in 1970, she spent the first year in shock while trying to contain her anger and sadness. “Then a year later in early spring,” she told me once, “I saw the first crocuses bloom. And suddenly I knew I would be okay.”
Practice appreciating those “blooming crocuses” in your life, both big and small.
Maxim 5: Train your body and your mind.
I would add to this maxim that we also need to train our heart, that is our ability to feel. The more conscious and healthy we are on every level – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually – the more we will be able to deal with the challenges we will need to face.
The better we can cope, the better we can endure the suffering of those around us and help ourselves and others to grow, heal, and yes – even thrive – beyond the inevitable grief and rage. (This spiritual service ties in with Maxim #4.)
This training of heart, mind, and soul is necessary before we can be fit enough to become, like Etty Hillesum at Westerbork, a “thinking heart”. During the three months she spent living amongst the “mud, overcrowding and people arriving every day in truckloads”, she vowed to become the “thinking heart of the barracks”:
“At night, as I lay in the camp on my plank bed, surrounded by women and girls gently snoring, dreaming aloud, quietly sobbing and tossing and turning, women and girls who often told me during the day, “We don’t want to think, we don’t want to feel, otherwise we are sure to go out of our minds,” I was sometimes filled with an infinite tenderness, and lay awake for hours letting all the many, too many impressions of a much-too-long day wash over me, and I prayed, ‘Let me be the thinking heart of these barracks.’ And that is what I want to be again. The thinking heart of a whole concentration camp.”
Maxim 6: Act for the future generation of all species.
The authors urge us to “Act, personally and politically, to limit the damage being done to the biosphere. Speak for the poor, the unborn generations, the forests, seas, and animals.”
For me, this is a tough one, as this maxim runs headlong into “drawing a line in the sand.” I know that in the last 20 years, 45% of the worldwide insect species have died, but I don’t want ants running around my house. I can capture a spider and carry it outside to a nearby flowerbed, but a scorpion on my bathroom floor needs to be stepped on. Mice do not belong in my pantry.
“It is essential to find creative ways to cultivate an in-depth, emotional as well as intellectual understanding of interconnection, so that…we are acting for everything in the global web.”
The keywords here are “creative ways”. I’m still working on this one! Let’s try together!
Now I introduce my two personal maxims:
Maxim 7: Use humor whenever possible.
Humor can help bring a new perspective to any situation. In Assagioli’s seminal essay “Smiling Wisdom”, he begins by talking about the physical and psychological benefits of laughter. He then explores the spiritual value of laughter, especially as a means of overcoming suffering.
Often when we cannot find anything humorous about a situation, we are too serious and intensely attached to the issue we are facing. Humor can help bring a sense of proportion to any struggle, which in turn helps us to ground ourselves into what is real and eternal.
A beautiful example of humor mitigating tragedy can be seen in the movie La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful). In the film, a father employs his imagination and playful humor to shield his son from the horrors of internment in a concentration camp. Life at the camp becomes a complicated game for the boy, complete with points and a grand prize of winning a tank.
Like everything else in life, humor must be applied to good purpose and in the right proportion, otherwise it can turn into sarcastic criticism. A true humorist is one who can see human life in all its frailty with a compassionate and playful heart.
Maxim 8: Connect with a Higher Power.
I believe this maxim is vital as we cannot depend on our egos alone to deal with this crisis. Whether you have faith in God, Allah, Jesus, the Cosmos, who or whatever – you need to have a connection to a higher source of Wisdom and Light, a connection that you continuously and regularly cultivate. To illustrate this fundamental and essential need, I return to Dante’s Divine Comedy, which so beautifully describes where we are right now and our emphatic need to connect to a Higher Power.
In the epic poem, Dante is guided by the poet Virgil through Hell where they meet shadow souls who are eternally lost because of the choices they have made. Hell is divided into three sections and as you journey downwards, the souls’ transgressions become more grievous.
While the souls in the upper part of Hell have not consciously chosen to do evil, they are there because they have not consciously refused evil. They are only half-conscious and weak of will.
This is exactly where many of us are right now. During the past decades, we might have known that our actions were effecting the earth’s health, (the first Earth Day was, after all, April 1970!), but we remained only half-conscious and weak of will. We did not consciously choose to pollute, blunder, and destroy our earthly home, but we also did not consciously refuse to do so.
The middle and lower parts of Hell, however, are for those who have consciously chosen to commit acts of violence and fraud respectively. In other words, the souls condemned for violence and fraud have consciousness and will, but they have only directed their attention and action toward darker and negative goals leading them to endless suffering. In psychosynthesis terms, these souls have consciously used their will to completely disconnect themselves from the Higher Self, a Higher Power.
This lower part of Hell could easily accommodate all the oil and gas executives that consciously chose not to disclose their company’s scientific findings on how devastating the exploitation of natural resources would be to future generations. But we also must be honest about our own culpability. At this moment in time, we all stand at this threshold. If we don’t make wise, clear choices right now, we are doomed to consciously commit acts of violence, betraying ourselves, our planet, and our future.
Upon reaching the middle circle of Hell, Virgil and Dante are barred from entering the City of Dis (i.e. the City of Satan) by great iron battlements. This gate is guarded by hundreds of fierce demons. To make matters worse, three Furies appear – images symbolic of haunting remorse – and threaten to uncover Medusa’s head. Virgil quickly orders Dante to cover his eyes with his hands and further protects his prodigy by placing his own hands over Dante’s. If a living man catches even the smallest glimpse of the Medusa, he will forever turn to stone – petrified by the destructive forces of evil.
All Virgil and Dante can do is wait for divine help. Soon a messenger from Heaven arrives and the Furies and Medusa vanish. An angel touches the gate with a wand and cries out the will of God. Virgil and Dante are finally unopposed to enter into the middle regions of Hell.
In this example, both Dante and Virgil require the will of the Higher Self before they can enter deep and terrifying gloom. This is the same for us as we face the crises we are in. Without a connection to a Higher Power, we can too easily be turned into stone (i.e., we gaze upon Medusa), frozen and unable to act, as we become overwhelmed by grief and remorse.
The gate of Dis can only be safely passed by those who have come to the kind of faith and humility which brought the angel to Dante’s aid. Without such faith and humility, looking upon the darkness within oneself and others can, in effect, result in our losing our humanity to insanity or despair or becoming completely possessed and identified with evil.
It is truly a lifetime endeavor to discern how much depends on our will alone to act, and when we need to patiently wait for the moment when our will and the will of a Higher Power are aligned. This alignment will bring us great insight, courage, and immediacy when coming face-to-face with the dark side of reality and helping us to choose against evil itself.
After the COP26 ended in Glasgow, and I couldn’t help feeling like a lemming caught in a mass migration off a towering cliff. It’s difficult to stay grounded and hopeful when faced with the empty actions of our political leaders and the 100+ coal, oil and gas company lobbyists and their associated groups who welded influence during the conference.
Even though the U.S. military pollutes more than 140 countries combined, their emissions are not included in any calculations (due to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol decision to exclude them). And since the 2015 Paris Agreement, 1005 land and environmental defenders have been murdered, with one out of three being an Indigenous person.
According to scientist Ken Anderson, “net zero,” is meaningless rhetoric (or more simply Blah, Blah, Blah) that allows us to move the burden in reducing emissions from today out to future generations. He said, “Net zero is Latin for kicking the can down the road.”
On a personal level, I have struggled with watching in quiet desperation as neighbors cut down their trees for firewood. My nearby neighbors are a farming family, four generations that have lived here for more than a century. They own most of the surrounding land and they do not hesitate to cut down trees and hedges, in order to turn fields into plowable acreage, which they mindlessly kill with fertilizers. Continue reading →
As an expression of beauty, awe, and awakening, art has always played a great part along our journey to our Higher Self. Throughout the world, holy places have been built to hold the polar tensions of spirit and matter, inner and outer space and light, as well as the community that shares the transcendent experience within the architectural space.
Assagioli noted that:
“Matter is the highest form of Spirit and Spirit is the lowest form of Matter.”
In this way, spirit seeks matter to express the full beauty of the transcendent. Assagioli also noted that Plato, Plotinus, and Christian mystics have recognized and proclaimed that “beauty is the essential attribute of the Supreme.” Continue reading →
In the Umbrian countryside, it is time to burn old growth.
We are now at the end of Lent – a time before Easter when Christians seek purification through fasting, prayer, and charitable acts. The forty days of Lent are, in many ways, similar to the Islamic time of Ramadan, which I was fortunate enoughto experience while living in Egypt. During Ramadan, Moslems are expected to fast as well as give alms and read the Qur’an.
Assagioli wrote extensively on what he called “the science of applied purification”, insisting that this work must be undertaken in order to transform the lower characteristics of our personality and bring unity to our soul. He described purification of the personality as a process of re-orientation and elevation of the higher mind. Using our will, we burn the dross of our affective and instinctual energies, habits, tendencies and passions. Once clear of the obstacles that prevent us from receiving our higher intuitions, we are free to receive wisdom from the Higher Self. In other words, purification is a necessary process that we all must endure along the journey towards personal psychosynthesis before we are adequately equipped to seek spiritual psychosynthesis.Continue reading →
Lately, I have been attending a series of talks about the Maternal Gift Economy. It’s an interesting concept that challenges our preconceptions of how the exchange of services and products must take place.
Some might say we have an exchange economy, but the reality is (and has been) that the global economy is an exploitive economy. As Assagioli wrote we are driven by Original Fear – fear of not having enough food, fear of hunger – and by Original Greed, which fundamentally is the desire for unlimited growth. Hence our tendency to consume and purchase, possess, save and hoard.
In contrast, a gift-based economyis grounded in the values of nurturing and care rather than competition and greed. To begin with, we might change how we talk about our services rendered. For example, when speaking about the medical staff who are having to deal with the onslaught of Covid-19 patients, we say they are ‘sacrificing’ themselves. But what changes inside us when we exchange the word ‘sacrifice’ for ‘gift’? Try saying: “Our doctors and nurses are gifting their expertise, care, time, and lives” and see how that feels.
This is a brief excerpt from my article recently published in the AAP Psychosynthesis Quarterly that explores the educational philosophies of Rabindranath Tagore and Roberto Assagioli. To download this article, please click here.
One of the most compelling worldwide impacts of Covid-19 is the abrupt and profound change in how children are being educated. What can psychosynthesis bring to this radical change in education? To start, we might turn to two great figures from the last century: Rabindranath Tagore and Roberto Assagioli.
During their lifetimes, Tagore and Assagioli were both participants in a larger educational movement during the early 19th century, a time of social and political upheaval, technological and industrial revolution, World War I, and the flu epidemic of 1918.
The cherry trees behind our house are bursting with fruit. More cherries than we can pick, eat, turn into jam, give away, or freeze. We still have jars from last year – plump cherries bloated by the pure alcohol bath they sit in, waiting to be plucked from the jar, soaked for a few hours in local spring water and eaten. Each fruit tree in the back bares a different type of cherry – white and sour, round and sweet, watery with too much pit. We are doing our best to collect what we can, but many will inevitably feed the birds, ants and insects, or drop to the ground and nourish the grassy knoll which they now adorn. Continue reading →
In Umbria, it all happened gradually. Like contracting the virus itself, I suppose. One person wearing a mask at the supermarket and everyone trying to act normal about it. The fervent washing of hands upon entering home. The silly jokes. Do you know the latest Italian slogan? Meno tasse, meno tosse (‘Less taxes, less coughing.’ But in Italian it’s funnier because it rhymes.) The collective denial when everyone shook hands as they offered the Sign of Peace during Sunday Mass.
Then things started to heat up. Like the feverish heat of the virus, I suppose. We were only allowed to go out to work, for food shopping and emergencies. Signs warned us at the supermarket to stand at least a meter apart while waiting on line. But I wondered about buying fruit and vegetables that anyone could handle and easily sneeze on. All the flour was missing from the shelves and the mozzarella nearly gone. Schools were all closed, but bars were open and restaurants too. People were still making plans to meet for dinner. Continue reading →
This weekend, many Italians are traveling to village cemeteries to pay homage to their ancestors. The Catholic feast of All Saints Day on November 1st is a national holiday followed by All Soul’s Day. It is a time for the living to ritually remember the dead – both saint and sinner alike. In preparation, the (mostly older) women are scrubbing tombstones clean and buying votive candles and pots of chrysanthemums to decorate the graves of loved ones. Coinciding with the beginning of darker days and longer nights, this time allows us to pause and consider our own life and death.
Fava bean flowers
The two days devoted to honoring the dead correspond agriculturally to when Umbrian farmers seed their fields. They are also busy burying onion bulbs and garlic cloves with the hope of enjoying sweet shoots in the spring. There is a local saying among our neighbors that All Saint’s Day marks the planting of fava beans. In fact, eating fava beans was once thought to be a way to be in communion with the dead. The bean flower is white with black markings that take the form of the Greek letter thet or θ, which is the first letter of thanatos, meaning ‘death’. Continue reading →